Cheetahs: so much more than just the ‘World’s Fastest Animal’

Image credit: Charles Sharp, Creative Commons

Cheetahs: so much more than just the ‘World’s Fastest Animal’

Each Wednesday, One Earth’s “Species of the Week” series highlights a relatively unknown and fascinating species to showcase the beauty, diversity, and remarkable characteristics of our shared planet Earth.

Today the cheetah is synonymous with speed. Nature documentaries showcase their agility reaching up to 80 mph as they chase gazelle in the Serengeti. Cheetahs have captured our curiosity since the Ancient Sumerians and Egyptians ruled, easily training them as hunting companions. With four different subspecies, a complex social structure, and a language all their own, there’s so much more to the cheetah than the title of ‘World’s Fastest Land Animal.’

With their distinct coat, faint gold in color, littered with black spots, and an underneath of white tuffs, all four subspecies derive from the oldest cheetah fossil dating back to 3.5 million years ago. There is the Southeast African cheetah, Northeast African cheetah, Northwest African cheetah, and the rare Asiatic cheetah found only in central Iran. Cheetahs are built for speed, complete with a thin build, slender legs, and a long tail. Adults can weigh between 44 and 143 pounds and grow up to 3 feet tall at the shoulder. 

Northwest African cheetah. Image credit: Creative Commons

“Cheetah” comes from the Sanskrit kitra-ya meaning checkered, adorned or painted. Throughout the ancient world cheetahs were found to be easily tamed and were turned into what was known as “hunting leopards.” They arose to the sides of royalty and even worship in kingdoms such as Sumar, Egypt, Greece, the Tang dynasty, Byzantine empire, Roman empire, and in the 10th century England, by William the Conqueror.

Socially, cheetahs are a bit of an enigma. Introverted extroverts, cheetahs like to be independent and generally avoid one another but are amicable in their meetings. Males tend to live in groups and need less area than their female counterparts. A study in the Kalahari Desert recorded an average of almost 7 miles every day for most females. Preferring a life of solitude until their offspring naturally force them into a pack, female cheetahs have their first litter of one to eight cubs at two to three years of age. Newborns are hidden in thick vegetation as it takes days for their eyes to open and two weeks to learn how to walk. From their nape down their back, cubs are covered in a thick, grey hair called a mantle. This mohawk-type appearance is thought to resemble a honey badger as young cheetahs are vulnerable to several predators. 

Asiatic cheetah. Image credit: Creative Commons

Even though cheetahs like to keep their distance, except for the occasional grooming, their social communication is common and has been observed to have a variety of vocalizations. Chirping has been reported when cheetahs are excited. This short, intense bird-like sound is made when gathered around a kill, a greeting amongst adults, or mothers calling for their lost cubs. A chur is similar to the roar of a lion and a pur is like that of a domestic house cat, although much louder. Cheetahs make an assortment of other sounds including a "nyam nyam" sound while eating, bleating, coughing, hissing, meowing and yowling. All of which can be kept low or reach a pitch to travel across the plains.  

Requiring such vast amounts of space to roam, all cheetah populations are decreasing due to habitat destruction and human expansion. The Asiatic cheetah and the Northwest African cheetah are listed as critically endangered. In 2011, the Endangered Wildlife Trust sponsored the Cheetah Metapopulation Project which has increased the wild cheetah population from 217 to 419 in South Africa. The Northwest African cheetah is the flagship species of the West Saharan Montane Xeric Woodlands ecoregion, located in the Southern Sahara Deserts & Mountain Woodlands bioregion (PA25).

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